Monday, 7 April 2014

Please Turn Off the Music

At the risk of sounding like an old fuddy-duddy instead of a refined ex-disco queen, I think it's time to Turn Off the Music.

I mean, take today. I turn up at the pool for a quick lunchtime swim. Nothing too punishing, just forty minutes of lap time in between everything else. Are you with me? Picture Catherine in her nun's training swimmers. Yes I went to a convent high school and like everyone else did years of swimming carnivals and laps in the pool and my swimming attire has never been very hip. In fact, if Proust's first sophisticated and very chic first memory is of 'une madeleine', well, mine is of chlorine up the back of my nose.

You see, it's so very different when you go to the pool in Italy. Especially for the guys. I mean, where in Sydney I've seen blokes hop out of their cars shirtless, shoeless, and lumber down to the North Sydney Pool as though they have just rolled out of bed, in Vicenza once I swear I saw a well-trained hippo in Matching Yellow Bathing Cap and Matching Yellow Teeny Swimmers - every lap completed with a self-satisfied preening as all the old ladies rocked in his wake.

Let us rewind. I'm in my daggy cozzie, needing a wax (next week!) starting to pick up speed, and I see a guy in flippers, fancy goggles, very sleek cap, odious goatie and a set of freakin' ear plugs for music! Hello? And oh gawd he thinks I'm checking him out. And then - I looked over a few lanes - and there was another set of ear phones on another guy's head! Excuse me?

Whatever happened to the sound of water thrumming past your ears, or soft splashing as you cut your hand in the water for backstroke, or listening to your own lungs emptying as your freestyle carves along? Why would you want to miss out on that?

It's something I don't understand, having music broadcast directly into your brain. Don't get me wrong. I LOVE loud music when I drive (though not always, I do like to think) and I spent years under speakers ten times the size of me at concerts when I was young and less deaf, and I do love to dance and party and be surrounded even pummelled by sound. But I feel a little put-off when I see so many people (my offspring included) who are being drip-fed a soundtrack, whose lives are cool movies with not much of a plot.

Whatever happened to daydreaming? Looking out of a train window at the skyline? Catching the tail of an idea unexpectedly? Or the delight of listening in on somebody's conversation?

Have a look about. Isn't it astounding? People sitting on trains and buses are more remote than ever before, each on planet MusicBuzz. Or you hear a wanker yelling into his or her phone for half an hour. That's no fun. Even on the ski slopes I am amazed to see how many people are plugged into sound, with the unplugged sounds of the landscape - and the universe - ignored. How will we ever plumb our secret thoughts and notions or begin to compose our lives if we are always plugged into sound? How will the eddies of our mysterious subconscious ever spill into our thoughts as a shivering surprise?

I seriously wonder if this generation - old and young alike - are stepping away from the Self. If we are becoming more and more of a collective instead of a society of independent lively minds. Think of how many people - young 'uns especially - who have now spent years without ever listening to the dialogue that all of us have within our many selves. Weighing up the day, uncovering our deepest thoughts. How can this happen between Track One and Track Nineteen or a little Random?

Please guys. Please. Just turn off the music. Let's unplug our beautiful brains.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Heel Porn

Gianvito Rossi - electrify!

Have you fallen in love recently? 
I have. They cost XXXeuro !!

I swear I’m trying my best to move on to the next guy. I mean pair of heels. 

This is what I CANNOT STAND ABOUT LIVING IN ITALY. And what’s worse is when an expert internet shopper friend (grazie mille Susi!) joins you for an afternoon of dedicated heel browsing. I surrender! So much more alluring than a dating site. Oh, geez, a thousand times over.

Since when did shopping become so sinful? At first it was just a crazy afternoon thang, or being tossed about between sale seasons, or a guilty shopping bag under your coat when you crept in the door after dark. And the new heels worn only after a couple of weeks so as not to arouse suspicion. 

What? These old things? Had them for years..

But these days internet shopping is hardcore. It’s two steps away from porn. You should have heard the ooohhhs and aaaahhhhs from the kitchen table the other afternoon. The photos favourited and whatsapped. The number of times we came back to our dirty favourites. And how we pored and pored. And pored. Left side view, from the back, oh the lovely shot from the front dyou like these ones??

I swear. Is this what guys do over big boobs and wild positions?

And it truly does feel so sinful. As you go deeper and deeper down the page it is a descent into fiery, credit-card melting depths. To get this far you have to toss your soul out the window or better, sell her to the shoe devil that has overtaken your mind... Jimmy Choo, Dior, YSL, Charlotte Olympia.. Oh the shiver! And these thrills are not cheap I tell you.

And of course the WORST thing you can do is internet shop when there’s a bottle of vodka in the freezer. Right? When you have a couple of hours to kill before a dinner party and the time is just-right. Don’t go there ladies. Don’t open that bottle. Don’t get out those shot glasses.

It will hurt.

Ahh but sinning feels so good, doesn’t it? The shock of the new. The burst of the new season. The touch of new, groomed leather against your skin.

Okay. Deep breath. A bit of yoga or saintly mediation? Nahhh… I promise I didn’t buy a pair. Yet. 

It’s, err, not as if my, um, shoe cupboard is empty.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Wild Beasts of the Earth Will Adore Him

I've been busy. Nooo, not writing another blockbuster, but very much entangled in words. In fact I've been going nuts with words.

Ever walked into an Italian church which is just dripping with marble and angels and columns and symbols and layer upon layer of history you know you should understand? And how about being asked to translate a text about this from Italian to English. A text with bits in Latin, funeral inscriptions, a shift in architectural styles according to the evolution in fashion and technical prowess, and tastes of a myriad of pushy nuns at the helm of a convent complex?

The Sibyl Cumana in Raphael's Sistine Chapel
It was deep. But I think I will remember my favourite bits for a long time. The four sibyls - Samia, Tiburtina, Frigia and Cumana. Don't you just love those names? I could have four more daughters just to use them.

According to legend the Sibyls were prophetesses of the ancient world, who pronounced oracles in a state of ecstasy. These prophetesses lived in remote caves and nearby springs and were sometimes described as the priestesses of Apollo, or his favourites. It is said that when Apollo asked the Sibyl Cumana to choose a gift, she asked to live as many years as the grains of sand she held in her hand. However, she failed to asked for continued youth and became a shrivelled, old woman. When children asked 'Sibyl, what do you want?' she used to answer, 'I want to die.'

Creepy.. Oh and I also just found out that Sibyl is a UK-based confidential Christian spirituality group for transgender people. Gosh! The endless tail-chasing that goes on once you hop online...

And what about this:



In 1550, these words were inscribed on the tombstone of Camillo Pigafetta, Knight of Jerusalem, husband of Margherita, father of 14 children. And there is an even longer inscription on that of his illustrious nephew Filippo Pigafetta, whose achievements included performing in the inaugural production of Sophocles' Oedipus in Palladio's Teatro Olimpico, circumnavigating the globe (in a bucket!), taking part in both naval and land battles from Hungary to Persia, being Pope Innocent IX's secret messenger... The list of Pigafetta's achievements nearly fills a page and makes me wonder about how soft and cerebral our lives are today. Can you imagine setting off to Jerusalem and Mount Sinai on a horse? A boat? Another horse? Delivering the Pope's scrolls up and down the continent?

You know, when I translate historical stuff I always try to imagine these people, living with them for a stretch, just like you live with the characters in your novel or short story. Sometimes I swear I can see them - tinier men and women with folksy clothes and caps and greasy hair, talking crazy dialect. I even saw that Caterina used to be Chatelina. Chattel? Moi?

Then I imagine I can see the unpopulated hills about our town, the dirt roads and wagons pulling into theatrical porticos with columns and manservants in Duran Duran shirts. Everything is smaller except the massive entranceways and church facades which must have been all the more belittling. Horses plop in the street. There are bonnets. It's so tangible, the way the centuries can roll away in a small Italian town and you are standing there, amongst the underwear and ice cream shops, the unsightly McDonalds, imagining this.

The ever-present past and here we are all clutching our mobile phones to our cheeks.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Blog Her Award - Shoes, Stones and Triumph

Thanks very much, Rachel Fenton, for presenting me with this blog award ! Some of you will remember that I met up with Short Fiction prizewinner Rachel Fenton in Soho last November for a brilliant Wagamama lunch where we both motor-mouthed for hours. Oh and we also read our stories at the Short Fiction launch at the Plymouth Book Festival. A great time was had. Thanks Rachel!
- Where do you usually write/create?
In my music room/library downstairs which is full of bookshelves and African sculptures and a big gilded mirror and a black piano. It’s my favourite place and I don’t even like people coming in here.

- Describe your ideal writing/making day.
I drop off my son at the bus stop at 6.30am and make a big cup of green tea and shut myself off to the world. I’ll stay there as long as I can.

- What are you really enjoying working on at the moment?
I’m halfway through my second short story collection and things are heating up! I love writing stories, for me it’s a druggie thing. I need to do it. I’ve just had my first piece from the new collection accepted by a review so I’m pushing ahead.

- What, if anything, stops you from writing?
People, family, worry, work, bills to pay. Just like everybody. Sometimes the house is a tip and I really have to wade my way through, or the fridge has been empty for a week. Or I need to recharge and I run away to the Dolomites for a ski or to Venice for a rainy walk.
Blogging is time-consuming but must be done. Also book promotion falls into my hands. A writer's work is never done..

- If you could choose a writer to be your mentor (share work with, chat about the process) who would it be? 
Gosh. George Saunders. I think he would be a great teacher. Or Nam Le. Sarah Hall. Cate Kennedy. I’d probably be too daunted to say a word though.

- Do you believe in writer's block? If you get it, how do you overcome it?
Somebody once told me a story was a wheel or a merry-go-around and you just have to hop on at the right place. I think this is true for me. Sometimes I have to wait to think up the right place to begin. It can be a waiting game. But I just go away or do something else, or work on a list of other themes for stories. Beginnings are so important.

- Tell us a good thing that happened to you today.
A lovely man sent me a beautiful song.

- What's the first thing you do in the morning?
 Like everybody, I check my email. Then I let the dogs out.

- What's your most listened to song?
Mmmm. Overall, it might be ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ but Isaac Hayes or ‘All Along the Watchtower’ by Jimi Hendrix. Lately I’ve been listening to Patti Smith’s Horses in the car to empty my head. I’ve also been listening to Haydn’s piano Sonata no. 53 because I am studying it.

- Who would play you in the movie of your life? 
Isabelle Huppert. She is my queen!

- What would the title of your autobiography be?
I haven’t a clue. This needs some thought.

Apparently I have to pass this on, and the five nominees I've chosen are:

Sylvia Petter - Merc's World
Alison Lock 
Jane Telford – Indulge Divulge
Downith –Write it downith
Lisa Chiodo - Renovating Italy
Ingrid Christensen dreamlifeofmine

Nominees - if you choose to accept the award, here's what you need to do:

    Thank the person who nominated you, and post a link to their blog on your blog.

    Display the award on your blog — by including it in your post and/or displaying it using a “widget” or a “gadget”. (Note that the best way to do this is to save the image to your own computer and then upload it to your blog post.)

    Answer 11 questions about yourself, which will be provided to you by the person who nominated you.( I only wrote six.)

    Provide 11 random facts about yourself. (Again, I only wrote six. I don't want to bore you!)

    Nominate 5 – 11 blogs that you feel deserve the award, who have a less than 1000 followers. (Note that you can always ask the blog owner this since not all blogs display a widget that lets the readers know this information!)

    Create a new list of questions for the blogger to answer.

    List these rules in your post (You can copy and paste from here.) Once you have written and published it, you then have to:

    Inform the people/blogs that you nominated that they have been nominated for the Liebster award and provide a link for them to your post so that they can learn about it (they might not have ever heard of it!)

These are my answers to Rachel Fenton’s questions and my random facts/new questions follow below:
Who or what motivates you? 
Words, a deep love of words
If you weren’t doing what you do, what would you do?
A gardener. A set designer. A pianist.
You’re on a desert island, what have you taken with you?
A man! A big hat and lots of sun cream.
Describe in one sentence your work area.
My office is my nest, my warren, my theatre, my angst, my (shaky) triumph.
What are the barriers to your creativity?
Money. Time.
What’s your definition of success?
Good reviews. Okay sales. A lasting connection with others of this crazy writing tribe.


Here are six lightweight random facts about this skinny writer.
1. I live in the middle of vineyards.
2. I once fell in love with a man because of one word he said. 
3. I love to dance.
4. My first published story was called 'Elton John's Mother'
5. My shoe collection is sublime.
6. I collect stones from Corsica.

And here are my six (slightly more serious) questions for the next set of Liebster nominees:

*Do you think blogging helps or hinders your writing/creative efforts?

*Do you ever regret choosing to write?

*What had been your biggest creative triumph so far?

*Your biggest disappointment?

*Are you working hard enough?

*Who do you share you work with?

Hop to it!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

When I grow up I'm gonna be a cowgirl

I know it's a leopard
What did you want to be when you were an impressionable innocent young thing? A lion tamer like me? Impressionable and Wild Kingdom-lovin' young Cat decided she wanted to be nothing less than a lion tamer after going to see the Moscow Circus somewhere in central Sydney in the 70s. Why that idea flew into her head and blossomed, I'll never know. I think she watched Wild Kingdom too much, which if anyone remembers had an old dude talking about lions and so forth in Africa. Having lived on the continente for quite a few years and even having gone on a safari in Kenya where we saw nothing but Karen Blixen's house, I now realise that there was not a single African person in that television show. I don't remember park rangers. I don't remember villagers. Trips to collect water. Shanty towns. I don't remember Africa being portrayed as anything but a great big lion park, where I wanted to go to buddy up with lions.

Anybody remember Born Free? Elsa and her cubs? The Adamsons in Kenya?
Born free, as free as the wind blows
As free as the grass grows
Born free to follow your heart..
Later I learnt that both Joy and George were both murdered by locals in different circumstances and Elsa died of a tick bite(!)

Despite my love for lions I never had a cat and instead had a crazy cocker spaniel who for some reason made me want to become a vet. This desire dwindled when the hot Australian summers aggravated poor Cindy's (yes I watched the Brady Brunch) continuous ear infections, which meant endless cleaning out of poor Cindy's floppy painful ears. End of veterinary career.

And then? It becomes even more silly. After reading the entire set of Trixie Belden mysteries, over two dozen Agatha Christie books, Seven Little Australians, Charlotte's Web and various other little girl books, I decided that I, too, wanted to write. I remember I even began producing a book at twelve - it was a convict story! I think I was as interested in the drawings and cover and layout as I was in the story itself. And I do believe there was a whiff of sex suggested somewhere. The earliest blogger out there, with a twist.

Marguerite Duras, L'Amant, India Song
During university this desire really kicked in and I remember declaring that I was going to Paris to write books. I had pored over Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Duras, Jean-Paul Sartre, a bit of Hemingway and Henry Miller and Anais Nin, and I wasn't going to miss out. Sometimes I think of Paris not as a city but as a home. Enclosed, curtained, sheltered, intimate. The sound of rain outside the window, the spirit and the body turned towards intimacy, to friendships and loves. One more enclosed and intimate day of friendship and love, an alcove. Paris intimate like a room. Everything designed for intimacy. Five to seven was the magic hour of the lovers’ rendezvous. (Anais Nin, Diaries Vol 3, 1939-44)

I even remember my first story written in my au pair's garret, 'The Camel Hoop Earrings'. Never published. Better that way.

So lion tamer or writer? I also had a stretch of studying graphic design, languages and history, and wrote freelance newspaper articles for a Sydney newspaper, but my heart was in the novel. The short story. Katherine Mansfield. Christina Stead. Patrick White. Stendhal. Tolstoy. Turgenev... Man, the girl was thinking big.

I've stuck to my (much smaller) guns and - foolishly! - am still doing it. But I swear there are many days when I wish I would throw my writing aspirations out the window, along with the computer. And I think I should have been something more simpler, more remunerative, less soul-bashing. A dental nurse who leans over and smiles and has facial piercings and black dyed hair and lots of tattoos. A back-up singer with big frizzy hair who has all the moves and a gravelly voice. Why me? Why do I have to be a writer? How pretentious is that?

And what of you? Have you realised your childish dreams? And what about your kids? Have you had any wild ideas appear in the house? What would you say if you child wanted to be a cowgirl? An opera singer? A ski instructor? A writer???

*  *  *  *
It's - ho-hum! - Valentine's Day, I've heard. As a BIG TREAT The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy is a Kindle Countdown Deal for the next few days.
10-12th Feb 99p on & $0.99 on
13-16th Feb £1.99 on & $3.99 on
(offer ends 8am 16th Feb GMT)

A gift copy for your divorced cousin/sister-in-law/BFF/mother/daughter who needs an Italian escape hatch??

Friday, 7 February 2014

How did I get here? (This is not my beautiful wife)

Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

I've always been attracted to the author in exile. The 'other' or outsider. Gertrude Stein in Paris, James Joyce in Trieste, David Malouf in Italy. I've always thought that from far away, you can write closer to the essence. Your sense of place will be crystalline because it will not suffer gusts of unrefined normality, your dialogue will not be tampered with by things you overhear, your mission will be clarified and seamless from the outset.

Oh, really ?

Yeah. But what happens when you move country seven times in nineteen years? When each home is a part of you, and a part of you is dissolved in another culture each time. Sure, there is home. There is infancy and childhood and language and the wonderful cradle of family, but when you spend most of your adulthood in another mindset and language your grasp on your original writing material gradually slides. You realise there are disconnected decades where you don't know what was happening in your birth country - what bands were big, who was Prime Minister, which authors were must-read. You knew more about Mitterand than Paul Keating. You knew more about Siad Barre and Jerry Rawlings than John Howard. These days, you know more about Silvio Berlusconi than Tony Abbott.

You've spent years adapting, learning languages, getting the twang out of your accent, being misunderstood... eventually not giving a stuff and dressing like a chic hippie anyway. You accept that you will always be an outsider. Probably that is what you felt in the first place, and are now putting it into practice, living it through and through. Year after year, getting on with it.

In fact, you are so far down the exile road (I hate the word expat, makes me think of fetes and bazaars), that you don't know where to point your telescopic lens and train your exacting vision. Where is home? Where was home? What on earth do I talk about? How did I get here?

You can't write about Australia (although you set short stories there when they come), because it feels a like you are pretending a bit. You can't write about Somalia because the place has overturned since you were living there and it is so dreadfully far from the city you used to walk through with a friend at night. You've written stuff set in Brussels, and Berlin, because stories came into your head from there. But there's a limit to the amount of stuff you can write set in Ghana because you are no longer living there and, well, there are plenty of Ghanaian writers who can take care of that.

The Divorced Lady's Companion to Living in Italy was the book I wrote when I put aside another novel (set in Ghana!). I never felt equipped to write anything set in Italy, and in this book the main character is also an outsider. In Pelt and Other Stories I tackled much more challenging subject matter and put myself into the hearts of a diverse set of characters, hoping that I could pull it off. Gay blokes from Sydney, a pregnant Ghanaian mistress, a medical student in Brussels... I worried that strings and pulleys might have been visible sometimes, or that I had drifted into places that were over my head.

It is so hard to let go, assume the role, trust your material, scatter doubts, pull through to the end of the story. I'm working on it. Sometimes I feel I will forever be borrowing sets or places, peopling them with dingbats who come into my head, but then I remember the striking words of the great writer Patrick White, who said he always felt like a magpie, snatching up glints here and there, stashing away material. A thief like me (I wish).

This week I am reading Flannery O'Connor whose material is steeped with local characters and sizzling colloquial talk. Apart from pure envy at her language, characters and endings, I wish I had the right to use straight-talkin' vocab like this: 'See theter notice,' Enoch said in a church whisper..He's done murdered somebody, Enoch thought.. (from 'The Heart of the Park, Complete Stories)

But I can't. I'm not Flannery O'Connor and I don't live in the Deep South in the 1950s. I'm a chic wandering hippie with a writing fixation who is going to have to find her own way to knit together truths and words and places, who probably wanted it this way in the first place.

In fact, I know how I got here.

Take it away David.

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well - How did I get here?

(Once in a Lifetime, Talking Heads)

Thursday, 30 January 2014

The Paris Hat

This writer wears many hats. Shoe devotee, novelist, classical pianist (who doesn't practise enough), gardener, cook, cleaner, short story writer, taxi driver, lover, mother, pet owner, swimmer, translator, English teacher... We all do, don't we? But one of my favorite hats is the Paris hat. Twice a year a fashion designer friend transports me from these soggy Veneto plains to the grey rooftops and tiled metro tunnels and exotic foods of one of my favourite cities in the world. Oh forget cranky Parisians and stiff monuments, this is buzzing mercurial Paris of colours and styles and energy fusions. All big cities have it and this country scribbler has had a giddy few days.

Anyone who scans ahead may be forgiven for thinking Catherine has been living it up in Paris at a four-day long rave. That's one way of looking at it. But these shots don't really show the difficulties in dragging racks of clothing up several levels of escalators, trying to write down orders in Italian while being spoken to in French and half-thinking in English, standing in heels all day (a personal and masochistic choice), living on peanuts apart from lavish Asian meals at night, staying in French Psycho Motels along the A6, drinking horrific French coffee and driving a van over the alps (in light snow) with windscreen wipers like oversized flippers.

They do, however, indicate some of the things that happened this week. For example:

Spending time with unexpected new friends (met up with some old ones too)

Being silly

Watching wild dancing from sparkling youth until there were tears in my eyes

Meeting entrancing people with weird talents (Yes this is the Etch-A-Sketch Princess who reminded me of Emily Dickinson in a way)

Oh and fashion, ho-hum, I didn't photograph any of that. Having had so many sneaky people sliding past trying to take surreptitious shots of Ale's clothes, I wasn't going to prowl the joint snapping people's work!

And here is the golden key, btw Downith, the famous BUBBLE CARD that made the three of us glow, giggle and trip sometimes.

And now - shock! horror! - I'm back at the farm. Another hat. A big woollen beanie. It's raining miles and the heating is bung. And Paris is where she is. Noble, dirty, full of poverty and power, bright kids and snappy ladies. Paris, je t'aime toujours.